Offseason Game Plan: Toronto Maple Leafs
Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Tampa Bay Lightning
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of 14 forwards, six defensemen, and one goaltender. Of the forwards, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel, Tim Connolly, Joffrey Lupul, and James van Riemsdyk all have no-trade clauses, while Nazem Kadri is the lone forward to have a two-way contract. On defense, Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles have no-trade clauses and Jake Gardiner carries a two-way contract.
At forward, Toronto’s top-six should include Kessel, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Grabovski, MacArthur, and one of Tyler Bozak, Connolly, Matt Frattin, or Nikolai Kulemin. Two seasons ago the hottest line for Toronto was the Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur line, but for various reasons that same line combination could not maintain the same kind of production in 2011-12. Instead, the most productive line in Toronto was the combination of Kessel, Lupul, and Bozak. GM Brian Burke had originally signed Connolly to fill in the top line center role, but when he failed to produce, Bozak stepped in and never looked back. For that reason, he will have the edge on Connolly for a top-six position next year, and the only thing keeping Connolly in the mix is his $4.75M cap hit, which is third highest among Toronto forwards.
Frattin was able to make his way into top-six territory last year thanks largely to the disappointing season from Kulemin, but also combined with the injury to Lupul toward the end of the year. In the final 10 games of the year, he was skating primarily in two different roles – taking Lupul’s place on the Bozak/Kessel line and taking Kulemin’s place on the Grabovski/MacArthur line, performing quite well in each role.
The addition of van Riemsdyk is certainly an interesting one, as the team has already stated they will try him out at center, despite JVR playing his entire professional career at left wing. If he were to stick all season long, Bozak would either have to shift to the wing or fall to the bottom-six.
Assuming Bozak is the one to stick in the top-six, Toronto’s bottom-six would be filled out by Kulemin, Connolly, Matt Lombardi, Kadri, Jay McClement, Dave Steckel, Frattin, and Mike Brown. Although it was probably not intended to be designed this way, Toronto has enough talent to present three scoring line threats with one pure checking line, and if the third line steps up to the level they can, there is going to be a lot of offense in Toronto.
In terms of players ready to step up, the Leafs have Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne, and Nick Deschamps. Unfortunately for all three, there is not going to be much room on the pro roster to get a call up, but if there is a need, these three are all potential call ups. Ashton is rounding out into a big, speedy forward rather than a power forward. He was noticeably nervous after last year’s trade to Toronto and with a full offseason under his belt to calm the nerves, he should be ready to keep progressing forward in the upcoming year. Colborne is a former first-round selection who was able to sneak into 10 NHL games last year, potting five points in the process. He has taken longer than expected, but he is still a solid prospect to own. Deschamps joined the Toronto Marlies halfway through last year and he managed to score 30 points in only 40 games, which would have made him the top Marlies scorer through a full year.
On defense, the top-four should include Dion Phaneuf, Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, and Gardiner, leaving Mike Komisarek and Korbinian Holzer to round out the third pairing, unless Franson is re-signed. If Franson is retained, he will certainly push for a top-four spot. In most league formats, Liles would be considered the second-best Leafs defenseman behind Phaneuf, which is probably the correct ranking, but it should be noted that Gardiner actually outscored Liles last season. While Gardiner did play in nine more games than Liles, he had three more points and a better plus/minus score by 12 points, which would be something to consider when drafting.
In terms of prospects ready to step up, the Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Simon Gysbers, and Jesse Blacker. Although only 18 years old, Rielly has the opportunity to win an NHL roster spot right out of camp. At the very least, he might end up with a nine-game test run before the Leafs decide what to do with their fifth overall selection in the 2012 Entry Draft. Gysbers and Blacker don’t carry any fantasy value for the time being, but are the best of the AHL crop to get a cup of coffee if needed. Gysbers led the Marlies’ defensemen in scoring, but managed only 29 points in 68 games. Blacker projects to be more of an offensive defenseman, but his first year as a professional was almost entirely an adjustment period. Although he has two OHL championships on his resume, Blacker could only muster 16 points in 58 games. If he can turn it on in his sophomore campaign, he may be able to sneak into the Maple Leafs roster once or twice.
In goal, James Reimer is the only one under contract. There have been rumors that Burke is shopping for another – with some names including Luongo and Bernier – but Burke has kept a straight face to the media, saying that he is confident in Reimer as his goaltender going forward. Reimer did suffer a concussion last season and he had a really hard time getting back on track after that, but as long as he is healthy, Reimer is a top goaltender at a cap-friendly contract. The concern for Reimer owners is that there has not been an investment in a backup goaltender at this point. Scrivens had a phenomenal college career at Cornell, followed by two seasons of impressive numbers in the AHL, and 12 games of NHL experience last year. Although he is still unsigned, Scrivens would make a perfect backup if Toronto is satisfied with the level of experience between these two.
In terms of players ready to move up, Toronto has Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya. Although they came close to splitting time when Scrivens wasn’t in the AHL, Owuya’s numbers were much better than Rynnas. Owuya had already spent time in the Elitserien, where he had the best save percentage in the league while playing for Djurgården. Last season was his first in North America, and although he played in both the ECHL and the AHL, that was simply due to the number of goaltenders in the Toronto system. As he made his way up, Owuya began to outshine his competition and in 2012-13, he should be ready to challenge for the starting gig for the Toronto farm squad.
Biggest holes to fill: Defensive depth.
Priorities: The top priority in Toronto should be to add defensive depth. Liles has had injury problems in the past and if he were to go down for an extended period of time, Rielly is the team’s best bet as a replacement for the time being. As he is too young to be stashed in the AHL, Rielly would not be an option if he were to be sent back to the WHL. Ironically as we saw in last week’s Tampa Bay Offseason Game Plan, the Maple Leafs could probably use Keith Aulie back just as much as the Lightning could use Ashton back. The second priority should be to come up with a goaltending plan (stick with Reimer or not) and stick to it. If they decide Reimer is their man, they need to either sign Scrivens as a backup or go shopping for one, but make it clear that Reimer is the top goaltender and a backup is secure. The fact that they have not yet done this suggests that either they are waiting for CBA talks to conclude or they are truly targeting another goaltender.
Overall, the Maple Leafs have a lot to look forward to in 2012-13. They have an offense filled with strong producers, mixed with players who underperformed and should be hungry for a bounce back year. Even if those players (i.e. Kulemin, Connolly) continue to underperform, there is still enough offensive talent to form a fantasy-relevant top-six forward base. On defense, Phaneuf, Liles, and Gardiner are the top fantasy assets and will continue to be for the next year or two unless additional players are acquired. In goal, Reimer is a more-than-capable top goaltender, but his fantasy relevance is up in the air until management makes up their mind.
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